Lucy Mangan

"Women can still be toxic bullies"

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I’m sure the revelations are true, but that doesn’t stop them also functioning as the greatest masterstroke in modern PR history. Until last week, I was intrigued by Kate Middleton, yes – so boring and yet so attractive and giving off such a similar sense of latent star quality as Diana did at the same stage, to the point where you want to tap William on the shoulder and make sure he’s aware of what he’s getting himself into, but now it has been disclosed that Kate was a victim of bullying at school. For the majority of us there can be no phrase more evocative of misery or more likely to cause us to clutch her to our collective bosoms and tell her we understand.

It was, apparently, when Kate arrived at Downe House as a tall, minority day-girl in a schoolful of boarders that she first began to appreciate the truth of the saying “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”. Her books were knocked out of her hands and when she sat down at a table to eat or work, the girls already there would stand up and re-seat themselves elsewhere. These of course will have been just the tangible things, the one-eighth of the iceberg that shows above the dark sea of psychological buffetings that will have propelled Kate through her day. Thanks to their early and innate abilities to discern people’s strengths and weaknesses and to understand within minutes the vast, pulsing network of emotions that exists amongst any gathering, girls make the best – or worst, depending on how you look at it – bullies.

For low-grade confidence undermining, women are the masters.

My first boyfriend at university once told me that he had been bullied at his boys’ school. An older, much sportier lad blamed him for the school football team’s failure to win a match. He came up to him in the playground, took hold of his hand and broke his thumb. After that, they became friends. My first reaction (diplomatically withheld) was you lucky bugger.

Girl-on-girl victims rarely enjoy the luxury of being targeted for specific, identifiable failures, for a start. It’s usually more to do with your hair, your shoes or… y’know, just some indefinable but profoundly offensive ‘Essence Of You’ that causes the pack to turn. I spent my (bookish and sartorially displeasing) days in a welter of confusion, the bewildered eye in the centre of a storm of innuendo, decoding insults disguised as compliments, and bogging in fear at the realisation that secrets told to former Best Friends were now being imparted to others in great spews. It wasn’t a school, it was a 17th century Florentine court. What I wouldn’t have given for a simple thumb-break.

As Victoria Wood so rightly said – I wouldn’t be an adolescent again if you bumped m’pocket money up to three and six. The most depressing thing is that it doesn’t always end with adolescence.

Most of us in our adult lives still have toxic ‘frenemies’ – women who speak in forked tongues and whose ability to wrong-foot you eight dozen times over coffee (“Let’s meet!” Let’s not) leave you bruised and limp by the time you push your barely tasted brew aside. And I hear far more stories about female friends having their working lives made miserable by female colleagues than I hear of men being traduced by other men. But for low-grade confidence-undermining, women are the masters.

Why is this? Maybe it’s the product of inexperience. We are still, in historical terms, fairly new to the workplace and the competition therein. Perhaps we return to the patterns played out in earlier contests for social power, instead of competing ruthlessly but fairly for promotions as men tend to do. Or perhaps the pot of professional power is still too meagre for us to feel, at some level, that we can afford not to use all the tools at our disposal to secure our share. So we fall back on personal weaponry to fight our corner. But it would behove us all to ensure we keep that slide from gossip to bitchery to bullying in check. And if you must do something, it’s better to break thumbs than spirits.

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Picture credit: Rex Features